The week in film: ‘Spider-Man 2,’ ‘Belle’ and more

April 30, 2014

belle

Yes, yes, I know – spidermanspidermanspidermanspiderman. I’ll get to it.

But my favorite movies of the week, as usual, are the small ones. Let’s start with Amma Asante’s “Belle,” a Jane Austen-ish film based on a true story.

The central character is Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of a British nobleman and a slave. Just before Dido’s father leaves to meet his death in service of the royal navy, he asks his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), to look after his daughter and bring her up as a lady.

But it’s the late 1700s in England and blacks are still slaves, for the most part. So while Lord and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) rear Dido as a lady, she is also something of an embarrassment, not allowed to dine at the table with the family when company calls.

As it happens, Lord Mansfield is also England’s Lord Chief Justice, and about to hear a case that will affect the future of the slave trade (which England abolished in 1807). It’s a political hot potato, but Mansfield’s perception of it – his personal connection to it – changes as he realizes the personal connection he has to it and to the idea of slaves as chattel.

There is a courtliness to this era, but a passion to Asante’s story-telling. Much of that has to do with the performance by Mbatha-Raw, whose sparkling intelligence and sparks of banked fire give this character both an intellectual and emotional depth. The fine actor Wilkinson finds his character’s steel, as well as his tenderness, in dealing with the great-niece he initially was ashamed of.

“Belle” is stirring film, capable of moving you even as it gives you a new perspective from the past on an issue that continues to plague us, here in the future.

for a woman

I also liked Diane Kurys’ “For a Woman,” a film from France opening in limited release (and available through Film Movement). In it, a contemporary filmmaker, dealing with the deaths of her parents, discovers a window into their past that forces her to consider them in a different way.

Moving back and forth between the contemporary Anne (Sylvie Testud) and her youthful self in post-World War II France, Kurys tells the story of her parents, Michel (Benoit Magimel) and Lena (Melanie Thierry), both Holocaust survivors starting life anew as though reborn. Indeed, Lena married Michel in order to save her life from the Nazis.

But their new life, remote from the horror of the war, seemingly is put at jeopardy by the arrival of Michel’s brother Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle). Separated when they were children, Michel and Jean haven’t seen each other in more than a decade, since before the war. Jean has more on his mind than simply starting a new life in Lyon; he’s headed for Palestine, but he has some unfinished business to take care of in Lyon before he goes.

The attraction between Michel’s brother and his wife is at the center of the film: the temptation to start over with someone she actually knows and cares for. How much can one brother ask of another – particularly when one puts the other’s well-being at risk?

Strong performances and a fluid narrative make “For a Woman” mysteriously watchable. It pulls you in without ever hinting at where it might take you. And that’s a gift.

bachelor

And a couple more:

“The Bachelor Weekend”: When I saw this at Toronto last year, I wrote, “Visually, it looks like a TV show most of the time. Yet the dialogue crackles and the comic action escalates in unexpected ways that will surprise you into escalating guffaws, assuming it finds its way to American screens. It should.” This Irish comedy has a slightly gentler sensibility than something like “The Hangover,” to which it inevitably will be compared, the difference being one of cultural sensibilities. But this story – of a bachelor party (in the form of a camping trip gone horribly wrong) – still provides laughter with a regularity that is not to be sniffed at.

“Now: In the Wings on a World Stage”: This documentary follows a production of “Richard III” that starred Kevin Spacey in a production directed by Oscar-winning, Tony-nominee Sam Mendes. Originated at London’s Old Vic, it toured the world before finishing its run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This film is a valentine to the life of the theater, even as director Jeremy Whelehan cleverly captures the entire “Richard III” by using the play’s plot to advance the film’s story. It’s the kind of movie that allows you to see other people’s passion at work.

906429 - The Amazing Spider-Man 2

OK, so, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

Economy is at the heart of comic books: thin little pulp magazines in which a single frame can tell a whole story.

Then there are comic-book movies, in which the idea of less being more gets turned on its head. This summer’s exhibit B: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” (Exhibit A? “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” of course.)

More is definitely less in this piece of Hollywood product that is – see if you can follow this – the sequel to the reboot of the three Spider-Man films that were produced last decade. Is this the second film in the series or the fifth? Does it matter when the movie takes as long to get to the point as this one does?

I grew up reading both Marvel and DC comics and always liked Marvel for giving its characters dimension: feelings, foibles, vulnerability and a sense of humor. That’s something that director Marc Webb captured in “The Amazing Spider-Man” in 2012 and with which he overstuffs this further adventure.

Too much of this film is devoted to the on-again, off-again romance between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, whose Queens accent is both intermittent and just plain weak) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). He promised her dying father (Denis Leary) that he would stay away from her at the end of the last film to keep her out of danger. But the heart wants blah blah blah.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man is battling a new bad guy, Electro (Jamie Foxx), whose origin story takes up valuable swatches of screen time. There’s a cursory nod to the Rhino (Paul Giamatti), but there’s no character there. And we meet Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) who — well, either you already know or you don’t care.

The action is massive but not that exciting. Indeed, the problem here is the problem with so many of comic-book movies, going back to Richard Donner’s “Superman” and Tim Burton’s “Batman”: not enough that’s thrilling and an acute awareness of just how self-referential these movies are.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what I say about it; this will be one of the biggest movies of the summer, despite only being so-so. It’s not a terrible movie; parts of it, in fact, are pretty good. But it’s the old syndrome: too many storylines, not enough movie. It’s overstuffed, exhaustingly elaborate and just not that much fun.

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